Control of stem cell self-renewal and differentiation by the heterochronic genes and the cellular asymmetry machinery in Caenorhabditis elegans

UMMS Affiliation

RNA Therapeutics Institute; Program in Molecular Medicine

Publication Date


Document Type



Biochemistry | Cellular and Molecular Physiology | Developmental Biology | Molecular Biology | Molecular Genetics


Transitions between asymmetric (self-renewing) and symmetric (proliferative) cell divisions are robustly regulated in the context of normal development and tissue homeostasis. To genetically assess the regulation of these transitions, we used the postembryonic epithelial stem (seam) cell lineages of Caenorhabditis elegans. In these lineages, the timing of these transitions is regulated by the evolutionarily conserved heterochronic pathway, whereas cell division asymmetry is conferred by a pathway consisting of Wnt (Wingless) pathway components, including posterior pharynx defect (POP-1)/TCF, APC related/adenomatosis polyposis coli (APR-1)/APC, and LIT-1/NLK (loss of intestine/Nemo-like kinase). Here we explore the genetic regulatory mechanisms underlying stage-specific transitions between self-renewing and proliferative behavior in the seam cell lineages. We show that mutations of genes in the heterochronic developmental timing pathway, including lin-14 (lineage defect), lin-28, lin-46, and the lin-4 and let-7 (lethal defects)-family microRNAs, affect the activity of LIT-1/POP-1 cellular asymmetry machinery and APR-1 polarity during larval development. Surprisingly, heterochronic mutations that enhance LIT-1 activity in seam cells can simultaneously also enhance the opposing, POP-1 activity, suggesting a role in modulating the potency of the cellular polarizing activity of the LIT-1/POP-1 system as development proceeds. These findings illuminate how the evolutionarily conserved cellular asymmetry machinery can be coupled to microRNA-regulated developmental pathways for robust regulation of stem cell maintenance and proliferation during the course of development. Such genetic interactions between developmental timing regulators and cell polarity regulators could underlie transitions between asymmetric and symmetric stem cell fates in other systems and could be deregulated in the context of developmental disorders and cancer.

DOI of Published Version



Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2015 Jan 20;112(3):E287-96. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1422852112. Epub 2015 Jan 5. Link to article on publisher's site

Journal/Book/Conference Title

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

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Link to Article in PubMed

PubMed ID